This article ran as a sidebar alongside “The Agony and Ecstasy of Beer Reviews,” which appeared in our July 2015 issue.
In May 2007, Rob Hill first stepped into a Total Wine & More and wandered around the Chantilly, Virginia, store of the nationwide alcohol retailer.
Preparing for an interview with the company, he perused the wine selection, but stopped at shelving packed with single bottles of beer.
“I was impressed with the selection, but quickly became perplexed by these really attractive beer bottles lacking information and only a white tag with the price,” said Hill, now new programs manager for customer experience with the company. “A business lightbulb went off in my head, telling me we had an opportunity.”
With the idea in his head—and the job in-hand—Hill flipped a switch for the Total Wine consumer shopping for beer. Informational tags, also known as shelf talkers, were used for wine in the stores, but with growing interest in beer, he hatched a plan to include them for brews, too.
About 2,500 beers sold in 113 Total Wine stores across 16 states now have shelf talkers sharing information like taste, aroma and the name of the brewer. To receive a tag, beers must garner a numerical rating score of 88 or higher from online or print beer reviews, with the score prominently displayed on the shelf talker.
Tags also appear at some Whole Foods Market grocery stores around the country, where regional and local beer teams, as well as individual store buyers, tailor beer selections to provide information that best suits local shoppers, said McKinzey Crossland, Whole Foods representative.
In addition to offering educational information for a consumer, these tags might help guide beer purchases as a customer browses.
“People are always interested in what experts think, whether it’s from a website or magazine,” said Jack Soll, associate professor of management at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, whose research focuses on psychology of judgment and decision making. “Taste is very subjective, so if a rating is very high, you might think of that beer as more special and perceive it as better, too.”
An effort to distinguish one beer from crowded shelf space led Pennsylvania’s Victory Brewing Co. to create shelf talkers, which have been in use for at least five years, said Amy DePaoli, director of marketing. Victory’s talkers showcase tasting notes as well as a score from online rating sites like RateBeer.com and are provided to distributors and sales team members.
“The craft beer industry is unique in that we all have respect for the art of brewing, but of course we want everybody to chose Victory even though there are a lot of phenomenal breweries out there,” DePaoli said. “We know the craft beer consumer likes variety and wants to be educated, so it’s important to point out these aspects for the consumer to see.”
When it comes to sales impact, Hill noted that Total Wine doesn’t track specific sales of beers that have shelf talkers compared with ones that don’t, but said he’s personally witnessed customers pick one beer over another after “judiciously reading the signs.”
Chuck Salzman, vice president of New Jersey’s Peerless Beverage Co., has seen that impact since charging his company’s marketing manager with creating shelf talkers five years ago. Like Total Wine, Peerless displays brewery and beer information alongside a score from RateBeer.com.
“When I’m at a store, I’ll watch people shop, and I see them drawn to a brand because they’re reading the shelf talker,” Salzman said. “They’ll pick it up, and I believe it’s partially because of the talker. Outside of a bottle label, they wouldn’t have any other information.”
Soll noted that the best way for consumers to decide on a beer would be to average ratings instead of relying on just one source, but simply seeing a shelf talker may be enough.
“Beers tagged with a rating will tend to be better than untagged beers, and if we just look at the tagged beers, your best bet is to go for the highest-rated one,” he said. “Which would you rather drink, a beer that somebody loved, or a beer that nobody loved?”